Campbell Scott picks me up at the Bedford Hills MetroNorth Station in Westchester County. Fortified with sandwiches and coffee, we clamber into his Chevy Blazer and head north up the Taconic Parkway towards the Catskills. It’s a down-home setting for an interview with a man who has played roles as worldly and diverse as Willy in Longtime Companion, Hamlet at the Old Globe, and, most recently, Tunner in Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film of The Sheltering Sky. But the cosmopolitan and the familiar co-exist peacefully in this actor‚ that’s part of his charm on screen and off. Funny, blunt, passionate, articulate … Campbell settles into fourth gear and we start to talk as the Hudson Valley rolls by.
Stuart Spencer How did your role in Craig Lucas’s film Longtime Companion come about?
Campbell Scott Norman [Rene] saw a little off-off-off-off thing I was doing.
CS It was a Mayakovsky play for a student director.
SS The play I saw.
CS Did you see it? You saw that? Did you like the Mayakovsky?
SS I loved you in it.
CS You hated it! It was confusing! But Mayakovsky’s confusing.
SS The script was confusing, but you made it ring like a bell.
CS (laughter) Fuck you. Here we go! So, anyway, I went and auditioned and that was that.
SS … We’re experiencing lovely scenery. I feel like we should be doing a travelogue here instead of an interview. I recall that we had drinks one night after your performance in Measure for Measure at Lincoln Center, in which you appeared as Claudio …
CS Angelo! I was Angelo! Boy, I obviously made a big impression.
SS Well I get confused on the names. That script is confusing, you know. Although you made it ring like a bell. (laughter) At any rate, I recall that you were in rehearsal for Longtime Companion and you were a bit on edge about the fact that you had spent all morning kissing a man.
CS Oh, no, no, no, no. I wasn’t on edge. Was I on edge? It all worked out perfectly, though. We had good guiding hands, so to speak.
SS But seriously, tell me about the process of working on Longtime Companion.
CS It was a very pleasant experience. It wasn’t at all a depressing set. You felt like you were doing something. Norman rehearsed for two weeks, which is very rare for a film, particularly a low budget film. And we only had about 5 1/2 weeks to shoot, but that also turned out to be good, because film making can tend to be tedious. A short time frame forces you to concentrate. And that’s exactly what we did.
SS How do you create a whole life for a character when you have, as you did in that film, only a few minutes on screen to convey an entire year of a character’s life?
CS It’s not the kind of thing you think about, because if you do you’re paralyzed. It seems to me that if you’re dealing with things that are so large: the subject, the period of time, the emotions … He’s not even listening to me, he’s looking out the window. He doesn’t even care. (laughter) The thing is that those issues are really the director’s and the editor’s problem. The actors’ problems are very specific, small, day-to-day problems. We were shooting all out of chronology, for example, and in that movie that’s amazingly difficult because you shoot a scene in which someone’s dead and then you go back and shoot the scene where they’re alive. You’re putting makeup on, trying to be young, and then more makeup trying not to be young … So you certainly had to keep your head together. Fortunately, the script was extremely clear. It was all there.
SS How much are you aware of the style of your director?
CS As I do it more, I become more aware of what I can do to bring about a certain effect. The director is deciding the kind of movement his camera wants to do, or as the case may be, the non-movement of the camera. He is wondering whether it is going to lend the movement to your story, or not; whether it will enhance the emotion of the scene, or mute it. It was Norman’s intention from the very beginning that the camera in this movie be extremely objective, and I think that was the right decision. I think it was you who mentioned to me that it was so pleasurable to be able to watch people act for a little while instead of being bombarded with all those cuts that tend to be the thing nowadays. I was watching On The Waterfront the other day and it’s funny, the way we’re programmed now, when I started watching it I felt that it wasn’t moving along quickly enough. But then I was sucked in. You end up with the very satisfying feeling that you’re actually in the room, rather than the sensation that all these things are exploding at you. When you make the camera subjective, you’re making it doubly dramatic, you’re letting the camera make some of the drama for you. And though that is sometimes appropriate, in a situation like Longtime Companion, the subject matter is so dramatic itself that you don’t need to be dramatic with the way you film. We didn’t want to indulge in the emotional parts of it, whether they were sad or happy or whatever. After all, in life we tend not to indulge in those situations, we tend to just react to them. In life, we’re right in the middle of the hurricane.
SS Do those two directing choices affect the way you work?
CS Yes, though if you trust the guy who’s doing it, it doesn’t really matter. Actually, there’s a perfect contrast with The Sheltering Sky, which I did immediately‚ and I mean immediately‚ after Longtime Companion. Bertolucci is exactly the opposite of Norman. His camera is always moving, always subjective, always a part of the emotion of the scene. He’s one of the best in the world at doing that. He’s extraordinary at picking up the kind of spontaneous feelings that might be happening in a scene between a man and a woman, or a man and the environment, or whatever. He subjects his camera to the experience, so that you’re taken in by it. When I went to Morocco I was nervous at first because I knew that that was the way it was going to be. And having just come off this one with Norman, I was terrified that I couldn’t handle it. But you adjust your technicalities, and that’s that. With Bernardo you’re going to have shorter scenes, he’s going to be getting things at a lot more different angles, and with a lot more idiosyncrasies. He might just be on your fingers the whole shot, or your eyes. He may stay away from what we would call the action of a scene. He may try to show it through the eyes of a third character. So you don’t get to play the whole scene like we did with Norman. But that’s the difference with doing a film with people who are theater-oriented and someone who’s completely cinematically-oriented from day one. The thing that made both experiences work was that both men were good at what they did.
SS You once said something to me about Bertolucci‚ that when he sits down to talk with you about the scene, he always manages to boil it down to a very simple, perhaps even very obvious idea, but one you’d somehow managed to overlook or had forgotten about in the process of preparing.
CS As a playwright, I’m sure you’ve become aware that an actor’s huge problem is in his head. He may be the kind of actor who does a lot of research …
SS Are you?
CS Not really. I do a little. Photographs are usually the best, because they’re more a feeling than a thought. They’re evocations, not provocations. Thought is good in the very beginning, but it kills, man, thinking kills, it really does. Because it will always stop you from taking the next step.
SS It’s the same with writing.
CS It’s the same for any art form. Boy, we’re getting pompous now. If you think too much, you die. It becomes stagnant. Painters will tell you that all the time. As soon as they leave that blur, that blurry state of mind that they had in the beginning, they’re in trouble. No matter how much research they might have done before they started, as soon as they start thinking about it, it dies. It can’t go on.
SS What did Bertolucci say to you that was so simple?
CS With an Italian director, it’s all about food or sex. Every scene boils down to one of the two, and they’re the same thing anyway, so basically it boils down to sex. No matter what the scene’s about, no matter who’s in the scene, no matter what environment you’re in, it boils down to “Who do you want to have sex with?” That’s a joke, but there’s something true about it.
SS The primal urge.
CS Yeah, yeah. And the fascinating thing about some characters is the amount of intellect that then goes on top of that, to either repress it, or conform to it, or erase it because of fear or whatever. And on the other hand, some characters will immediately give in to those fears, passions, instincts, urges, and that will dictate how they act. So it becomes a turning up or bringing down of the volume. As long as you, the actor, understand the basic urges, the basic desires in the scene, then it’s very easy for the director to just say, “Now tone it down. Now bring it up. Do this. Do that.” One of my early fears about Bertolucci was that he would not be able to talk to the actors, that he was just a visual, technical director. I was very pleasantly surprised.
SS And he was dealing here with three very American actors. That could not have been easy for him.
CS Well, there’s a bigger issue here. I think that making a film for Bernardo is an extremely subjective experience in the first place. He really gets involved with the story, with the emotions, with everything‚ it is not just a job with him. Which is not to say that he’s indulgent. But he’s artistic in the best, most simple sense of the word. I think he knows that about himself, so I think it’s thrilling for him to begin to deal with his actors based on what they’re about to go through together. This is a book about three Americans who are completely out of their element, swallowed up by a different culture. Bernardo had the challenge of first submitting himself to the culture the characters are entering, learning everything there is to know about its shadows …
SS Meaning Morocco …
CS Meaning Morocco and the whole of North Africa, which is very mysterious. The book itself is like a bleak, relentless landscape that these three ambiguous American personalities enter and are swallowed up by. And the wonderful thing about Bernardo is that he doesn’t know everything before he starts. He’s able to keep a kind of eight-year-old’s wonder about himself, which seems to be the thing that characterizes artists who can continue to do provocative work. They are able to retain a sense of spontaneity and of wonder, of not knowing everything, of not being able to control what’s going on. We literally followed the pattern of the people in the book; in other words, we started shooting in Tangier, which is where the characters started, and then we went deeper and deeper into the desert, as the characters themselves did. So, unlike most jobs that we do, it was an experience in itself. I think Bernardo promotes that: it’s part of it for him.
SS How’s Morocco?
CS Beautiful. Strange. Full of intrigue. Paul Bowles still lives in Tangier. He’s 81. He’s in the movie, for God’s sake.
SS How’s Paul Bowles?
CS Like most writers, you’re completely surprised when you meet him, because he’s not like his stories. His stories and novels are unbelievably raw and brutal and bleak and relentless. And then you meet him, and he’s this very nice, elegant, older gentleman who’s extremely well-read and well-spoken and from another time period.
SS Frozen in time?
CS Well, not frozen, but he is an expatriate from America, and he has been in Tangier forever …
SS There’s some lag time there.
CS Yeah, and there’s an era that I think he enjoyed living in more than the one we’re living in today. And who can blame him? I mean, Tangier of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, was unbelievable. Not like the one I was in. Now it’s interested in building up and getting some tourism and blah blah blah. Back then it was what we consider a pure, artistic community where everyone was smoking dope, and smoking hash, and fucking each other. Decadent in the romantic sense of the word.
SS (wistful sigh) …
CS Well, it’s hard to be decadent now.
SS Any mystical experiences in the desert?
CS No, although going to the dunes is unbelievable.
SS With your camel?
CS I wouldn’t get near one of those things.
SS You went by yourself?
CS No, that would be idiotic. I went with a few people who knew what they were doing. Just like in the movie, there were some drivers and some people who wanted to go. We went once in the day and again at night to camp out. The stars alone are truly, truly an incredible experience. And the sand is an indescribable iron color. Bowles quotes a French Foreign Legion expression: when a man first goes to the desert, they call it “le baptisme de solitude.” Meaning that when a man first enters the dunes, the real Sahara, he makes a decision whether to stay there for the rest of his life or whether to get out. But either way, once the Sahara has entered him, it never leaves. And man, it’s true. When you go there, there is no sound, at all. Except the wind. The wind is the only sound. You can see nothing ahead of you for miles. Hundreds of miles, and all it is, is sand.